KNOXVILLE — There are 118 major Division I NCAA football teams.
The University of Tennessee is 113th in penalties per game, and 107th in penalty yards per contest.
UT has been penalized 26 times for 215 yards through this season’s first three games.
That’s nearly nine penalties for nearly 72 yards per game.
“It’s really ridiculous,” sophomore wide receiver Gerald Jones said. “We’re grown men. We’ve got to stay a lot more disciplined.”
The Vols have just three major offensive players — Jones, quarterback Jonathan Crompton and sophomore fullback Kevin Cooper from Chattanooga — with significantly greater roles than last season.
But offensive line coach Greg Adkins is the only offensive assistant to return from last season, and the Vols’ front has been penalized 10 times. The offense has been whistled for six holding penalties, and just one came from a non-lineman.
The false starts have gradually decreased, though, from three at UCLA to two against UAB and one in Saturday’s loss to Florida.
“You certainly don’t want holding calls, but what you want to eliminate is the false starts, because those are things we can do something about,” Adkins said. “I thought both the (holding) penalties on Saturday were aggressive plays that maybe could have been called, and maybe couldn’t have been called.
Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee left tackle Chris Scott talks with a referee following a play against the Florida Gators at Neyland Stadium. Florida won 30-6.
“But there were others that weren’t called in the game that probably should have been called that weren’t, so those things always kind of work themselves out.”
Vols coach Phillip Fulmer was less diplomatic, wondering aloud, “How do I say this without getting in trouble?
“The two holding penalties, whatever (officials) saw, I don’t think it showed that way on film,” Fulmer added. “You could absolutely call holding on every down if you wanted to, and any official out there worth his salt would tell you that. Now, could we have done a couple of things a little bit better? Yes. Were they flagrant holding fouls? No. But they could have been called.
“We’ve had too many penalties in crucial situations. To go from second-and-4 at UCLA to second-and-14 on back-to-back penalties, you don’t like those.”
Regardless of reason, senior offensive tackle Ramon Foster said the penalties have been “tough to deal with.
“But we know it’s one of those things that we can fix,” Foster added. “It’s tough, but it’s not something we’re going to go in a hole and cry about.”
Senior tailback Arian Foster has the season’s only dead ball personal foul, when his post-snap actions turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-16 on UT’s first offensive possession against Florida.
Crompton lobbed an ill-advised pass to backup tailback Montario Hardesty on the next play, and Gators defensive back Janoris Jenkins rocked the ball from Hardesty’s hands before he could turn upfield. Florida recovered the fumble at UT’s 23-yard line and made a field goal four plays later to take a 10-0 lead.
“Obviously, our execution and discipline aren’t always what they need to be,” junior center Josh McNeil said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do ... We’ve got the players and coaches to be successful, but we’ve got to execute better than this.”
Fulmer has never wavered on his public stance that these Vols can compete for a Southeastern Conference championship. But they’ve already got one conference loss, and they’re playing at Auburn on Saturday.
Some of the best, most disciplined UT teams have lost or narrowly escaped Jordan Hare Stadium with a victory. It’s not an idea place for an opponent to rack up penalty yardage.
“This is an imperfect game; a game of mistakes,” Fulmer said. “You’ve got 22 people on the field at the same time, and somebody’s not going to be perfect on the thing. You’ve got to be the one that makes the fewest mistakes out there.
“It’s not an effort problem, or an attitude problem, or a competitive problem, or a leadership problem. But I’ve got four or five guys — would I like for them to be better leaders from an example standpoint in the classroom? Yes. Or in other areas? Absolutely, and I’ve talked to them and challenged them and everything. But we’ve got plenty of guys (doing the right things).”